A new Bronze Age axe

Here is my almost ready socketed axe:

Bronze Age socketed axe

Two things remain to be finished.  The cutting edge is blunt as a blunt thing and the handle is probably too thick.  Although I have polished out most of the scratches and the tiny casting flaws along the edge, I have to sharpen it.  It was cast by Neil Burridge and came safe-for-posting (not sharp!).  The wide angle of the axe’s bit takes some getting used to, and I’m sure that I will find it harder to sharpen than my narrower, more acute, steel axes.  You can see how wide the bit is by looking at the wedge-shaped cut mark it makes:

Bronze Age socketed axe

The haft is a piece of ash.  It used to look like this:

ash haft

The useful shape made by the side-branch also makes the perfect angle for this haft.  The angle between the handle (main branch) and the foreshaft (side branch) is about 65°.  There are two wooden handles for socketed axe heads excavated from Perry Oaks, angled at 66° and 62.5°, made from similar branches with side-branches.

My handle can be up to 60cm long, given the way the piece of ash was cut before it got to me.  The two Perry Oaks handles are 24.5cm and 70.6cm long, and both are close to 4cm thick.  4cm is a bit big for my hands.  This means I need to prioritise the fit more to my hands, less to the archaeology.  I’m not making a replica or facsimile; I’m making a working tool, that is based on the archaeological record.

The Perry Oaks foreshafts onto which socketed axe heads would have been fitted are short, only 9.4cm and 7.9mm long.  Marks on the wood suggest that the bronze axe heads fitted closely, butting up to the handles.  At their narrowest points the Perry Oaks foreshafts are 1.8cm and 2.4cm wide.  The socket hole of my axe head is this narrow only about one-third of the way down.  I need my foreshaft to be a better fit than this, and I want to keep it longer so that I have the option of making it shorter and bringing the axe head closer to the handle later on.

ash handle

There was much shaping to do to make the foreshaft fit the socket hole, the most awkward part of the task.  I could use the Flag Fen handle as an example to guide me.  Its foreshaft is 44.3cm long, its axe head fitted onto the end leaving lots of space between it and the handle.  The angle is more acute though, closer to 50°/55°.  Its axe head probably needed to be further away from the handle to provide enough clearance.

The naturally-grown shape is convenient, but brings some problems with it.  There were other, smaller, branches growing out of the main branch.  This means that the grain of the handle is knotted, not nice and straight.  This makes it harder to cut a smooth, regular surface; more likely to get blisters and splinters using the axe.  Cutting across the tumbled grain could create weak points.

But it’s almost finished, so the proof of the pudding will be in the eating…or axing.

Details about the Perry Oaks finds, analysed by Steve Allen, are available online from Framework Archaeology here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/388449/The-wooden-finds-from-Perry-Oaks   The Flag Fen handle, and others excavated from the site, is reported on in Pryor, F. (2001) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape  Swindon: English Heritage

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How to keep your tools sharp – and why archaeologists might prefer you not to

First things first – this post will not tell you how to sharpen your tools.

The best advice I can give you – without showing you – about how to sharpen your (steel) tools is (a) read Sainsbury, J. (1984) Sharpening and Care of Woodworking Tools and Equipment   Burgess Hill: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd.   The chapter on hand-tools is very useful, and the book has some great advice on grinding and sharpening equipment suitable for different types of workshop.

Then (b) take care over the quality of the materials that your tools are made of; poor quality materials won’t take and keep much of an edge.   And finally (c) learn through practice what it feels like to work with your edged tools, how they behave in different materials so you know what’s going on at the edge, and check your edges all the time.

So, back to how to keep them sharp.   I invest time in sharpening my edged tools.   The majority are steel (the rest bronze and flint), with a relatively high carbon content that among other things helps me to sharpen them by hand.

Most of my steel tools jumble around in a tool-bag, or when in use can be found lying around on my various chopping blocks or on the end of the shave-horse – recipe for disaster should anything fall to the floor!   Which is the main reason why I keep a thick layer of all the wood-shavings and chippings in the workshop.

But what about their storage and transport?   Most of the steel tools are odd shapes and sizes and whilst some came with sheaths, others have no protection.   Here is a selection of photos to demonstrate my solutions for keeping my tools sharp.   It’s easy to spot the home-made sheaths.

Nevertheless, imperfections in the cutting edges of tools can be revealing.   Maybe you’ve watched the TV CSI lab technicians match the tool marks in someone’s skull to potential murder weapons?   Remember how they work out which particular type of tyre iron, knife or blunt instrument was used to kill someone by comparing the shapes left in the victim’s bone with marks the CSIs thwack or stab into a suitable test material?

In theory you can do something similar in archaeology too.   An edged tool with a “ding”it it, like this one-

Edge damage on a small cleaver

Edge damage on a small cleaver

will leave a characteristic mark in the wood that it is used on.   Take my right-handed spoon knife.   In the photo below, you should be able to see the facets where I have used it to cut little chips away from a piece of birch; and inside the facets, thin, parallel lines which are left by the (currently damaged) knife edge.

Evidence for tool edge damage

Evidence for tool edge damage

Wouldn’t it be amazing to match up marks on prehistoric wood with the tools that were used to do the carving?  For example, some 9000 pieces of wood were recorded from the Area 6A excavations of the Bronze Age timber platform and trackway at Flag Fen (Peterborough, UK) (Taylor 2001:171).  Linking tools with timber at Flag Fen could throw light on ways that a major building enterprise was carried out and organised more than 3000 years ago.   In theory, the very chisel used to cut a mortise joint could be identified, and we could say “this tool was used to do that job”; just like the antler picks excavated from Stonehenge which were used to dig out the ditch and the holes for the standing stones.

In practice, it’s not so simple.   First, you need tools in order to study their edges.   Despite all that wood, the Flag Fen excavations revealed no more than one socketed gouge and one socketed axe-head (Coombs 2001:263, 265).   Why after all would anyone leave their tools behind?  Perhaps as part of a ritual, or accidental loss; but not if they are still needed for other activities.

In fact, many of what could be described as Bronze Age carpentry tools – especially axes – have been found in circumstances other than archaeological excavation; they were ploughed up by farmers or found by metal-detectorists, for example, with no associated timber to try to match to.   In any event, that timber will only be preserved if the underground conditions are right, like in the waterlogged peat at Flag Fen.   And archaeologically excavated examples of Bronze Age metalwork finds often show, by the careful positioning and arrangement of the objects, that the tools had been put in the ground in carefully deliberated ways (Barber 2003); in what archaeologists call hoards, and not necessarily associated with the timbers that tools might have been used on, nor abandoned in the workplace.

This raises an interesting question: were all Bronze Age carpentry tools intended for woodworking?   Metal – copper alloys and iron anyway, if not the precious metals – is often seen as “inherently utilitarian” (Barber 2001:164).   Yet sometimes there is evidence that tools had not been used.   For example, some of the axes from the Manton Copse 2 hoard found in Wiltshire in 1999 (and now in Wiltshire Museum) still bear their casting scars.   Were they “poorly finished” as described in the excavation report (Lawson et al 2011:35), or unfinished because they were never intended to be fettled and sharpened for carpentry?

Secondly, you need to be able to identify edge damage.   This could be difficult if the metal is corroded following thousands of years buried under the ground.   Or the object could have been damaged after it was buried, for example if hit by a plough share.   Some  imperfections, which could leave very characteristic marks, are nevertheless very difficult to see on the edge itself – like on my spoon knife, whose faults cannot be seen with the naked eye but are very obvious in the wood.

Thirdly, edge damage is easy to remove, and it is usually in the interest of the carpenter to re-sharpen and re-shape the edge.   Marks left in the wood might never be traceable to a tool which has been re-worked in this way.   There used to be a wonderful example of the reductive effects of sharpening on display in the Museum of St Albans, when the Salaman Collection was exhibited.   In the cabinet of sharpening equipment, a new chisel about 25cm long was shown alongside another of same make and original size, but which had been used and sharpened so much it is now only 10cm long.   The evidence would also disappear if the tool was recycled – melted down and turned into a new object.

That’s not to say that the study of prehistoric toolmarks is wishful thinking.   For example, 168 different axes were counted on the basis of the toolmarks left on the Flag Fen timbers.   Comparison of the toolmark shapes with the dimensions of different types of British Bronze Age axe led Maisie Taylor to conclude that socketed axes had been used to do the wood-working at the site (Taylor 2001:194-202).   More recently, photogrammetric and GIS techniques have been applied to the analysis of toolmarks on hewn prehistoric timber (Kovacs and Hanke 2012, 2013).

And finally…what might we conclude from the description of the Flag Fen scoop, carved from a piece of willow; “The bowl of the scoop was shaped across the grain and so well finished that no clues survive as to the method of fabrication.” (Taylor 2001:226)?

 

Barber, M. (2001) “A time and a place for Bronze”  In Brück, J. (ed)  Bronze Age Landscapes, Tradition and Transformation   Oxford: Oxbow Books

Barber, M. (2003) Bronze and the Bronze Age   Stroud: Tempus

Coombs, D. (2001) “Metalwork”   In Pryor, F. (et al) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape   Swindon: English Heritage

Kovács, K. and Hanke, K. (2012) “Hydrologic and feature-based surface analysis for tool mark investigation on archaeological finds”   International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences Volume XXXIX-B5:565-570

Kovács, K. and Hanke, K. (2013) “Automatic tool mark identification and comparison with known Bronze Age hand tool replicas”  ISPRS Annals of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences Volume II-5/W1:181-186

Lawson, A.J., Robinson, P. and Swanton, G. (2011)  “Bronze Age metalwork from Manton Copse, Preshute, Wiltshire”  Wiltshire Studies 104:31-43

Sainsbury, J. (1984) Sharpening and Care of Woodworking Tools and Equipment   Burgess Hill: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd

Taylor, M. (2001) “The Wood”  In Pryor, F. (et al) The Flag Fen Basin: Archaeology and Environment of a Fenland Landscape   Swindon: English Heritage

Learning about willow

There are some really interesting wooden artefacts from the Flag Fen excavations, preserved in the fenny waterlogged deposits.   One of these is a scoop, find reference A8458, carved from a piece of willow.   It was found in one of the lowest levels of the main excavated area of wooden timbers that make up the post alignment and platform of this major prehistoric site.   Associated with Phase 1 structures, it probably dates from around the thirteenth-century BC and is now in the British Museum.

Maisie Taylor analysed the wood from the excavations.    When describing the scoop she wrote, “The bowl of the scoop was shaped across the grain and so well finished that no clues survive as to the method of fabrication” (Pryor 2001:226).

Willow is a fibrous wood with a very open texture.   There are many British varieties and it hybridizes very easily.   The wood can be cut cleanly, but there is a risk that the fibres will tear out; apart from cricket bats, the most common use of willow is its withies for basketry.

With half an eye on the Flag Fen scoop, I’ve been trying out some unseasoned willow that came from a fallen tree in the River Kennet at Lockeridge.   The tree fell across the river and was affecting its course, so the landowner cut it up and I was given a few pieces.

This bowl was very easy to carve, using my small adze and a wide, shallow swept chisel designed for just this work.   However, the long, coarse fibres caused problems in the bowl bottom and where the bottom and sides meet as the chisel’s cutting edge went parallel to the grain rather than across it.   It will be interesting to compare with the behaviour of seasoned wood.   The bowl base is at the centre of the log and the oval form runs parallel with the log.

willow bowl

Willow bowl, March 2013

 

Pryor, F. (2001)   The Flag Fen Basin   Swindon: English Heritage